Bassist SHEZ RAJA is about to do two launch gigs for his fifth album, Gurutopia, (Dot Time). The CD has guest appearances by both Randy Brecker and Mike Stern — no less. Stephen Graham interviewed him:
Shez Raja comes to the phone, a slight Liverpudlian accent softly pronounced. We discuss his being from the Wirral, a “ferry cross the Mersey.” The accent is on positivity,
The jazz-rock fusion bass guitarist, now down south for years living in London, says: “In the Wirral we’re not really Scousers but we gravitate towards Liverpool rather than Manchester.”
It was in Liverpool that the jazz-rock fusion guitarist first cut his teeth as a teen playing in funk and fusion bands gigging around and playing places like the Flying Picket, the Heebie Jeebies, and Bourbon Street.
The son of an Asian father and English mother Raja started out making music as a young boy taking to violin first, an instrument that he still loves and includes as part of the arsenal of his band the Collective’s sound.
Approaching the release of his fifth album, to be released in April and which features giants of US jazz-rock fusion, Mike Stern and Randy Brecker, for Gurutopia Raja has written all its compositions including the tracks especially written with Stern’s blues-drenched signature style and the fabled jazz-funkateer Brecker pristine trumpet sound in mind.
|Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Shez Raja|
Raja switched from violin as a young player to bass guitar. When he started out on the instrument his axe was a mail order nine-volt amplified bass bought for £99 paid for by doing paper rounds and working in restaurants. It’s all a far cry from his current pro recording and live set-up of Warwick Streamer five-string bass using tenor tuning and a Gallien-Krueger amp.
Recalling his first gig he says, he was 15. “It was in a venue called Planet X in Liverpool with a really quirky experimental heavy rock band.” With a smile in his voice as he thinks back to a time that he knew that he had found his calling. “In the dressing room, drinking Newkie Brown ale, it was terrific. ‘Wow’ my soul sings!’”
Raja knew then that he wanted to be a musician and this sense of the “here and now” that he refers to as he returns momentarily to memories of that first special gig lingers as he describes it.
Another early impactful musical event that struck Raja as a teen was hearing the music of John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra. His admiration for McLaughlin continues to this day. “It was the astonishing virtuosity of it all” that appealed to him most.
Now a father of a four-year-old son called John who his proud dad has named ‘Song for John’ on Gurutopia in his honour, “seeing your world through his eyes is a magical experience,” he says.
Raja’s band on the record have largely been together with him for quite some time and feature the vocals of Polish singer Monika Lidke, which are used as a veritable instrument within the otherwise instrumental mix bristling with keyboards, sax and violin.
Raja has in a relatively short number of years on record built a strong under the radar underground reputation among leading musicians. And whether it’s playing with Nigel Kennedy, Andy Sheppard or Soweto Kinch, his own sound that lands midway between Kai Eckhardt and Etienne Mbappe’s meantime growing his own band to develop their complete sense of “jazz karma” is part of the approach.
Changing labels and moving to the New York label Dot Time Records from Paul Jolly’s 33 Jazz home to Soho Live, Raja’s first live album, and Mystic Radikal (after the self-released Ten of Wands and 2007’s Magica formed his early self-released work) has so far proved a good move. Raja says: “What I liked about them was that they are very dynamic and pro-active with social media and in terms of getting their brand out there”. That accent on positivity, where the conversation first started, once more.
The “Gurutopia” album launch is at the 606 Club on 21st April, and Shez Raja’s band will also be part of a Dot Time showcase at Jazzahead in Bremen on 23rd April.